Preview: FIRE! Orchestra / INTERVIEW: Mats Gustafsson (The Laundry, Hackney, 26th Sept)

Mats Gustafsson. Drawing by Geoff Winston.
© 2014. All Rights Reserved

Preview: FIRE! Orchestra
(The Laundry, 26 September 2014; preview/interview with Mats Gustafsson and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Mats Gustafsson, in this interview with Geoff Winston, gives the inside track on the Fire! Orchestra adventure which will be rolling in to The Laundry venue in Hackney on 26 September, as part of the Transcender festival, jointly promoted by Cafe Oto and the Barbican.

Audiences in London have appreciated Mats Gustafsson’s visits here in both small groups and as solo performer.  Recent highlights have included collaborations with Thurston Moore and other great improvisers, and in trios including The Thing and the Fire! Trio (with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin), as well as his participation in the Brötzmann Chicago Tentet.

This being something on an altogether grander scale, Geoff first asked him about the different challenges of a large venture such as FIRE! : 

Geoff Winston: How did you make the jump from a trio to a 28 piece orchestra (plus 2 engineers)?

Mats Gustafsson: Well, it was a typical 3am decision… just chilling in a bar after a long European tour. After the last gig, having some drinks together and dreaming about the future. The idea came to all 3 of us at the same time: ‘Why not gather all our friends in Stockholm and just play FIRE! music. Just starting the year with a FIRE! party!’

And so we did. It was a huge success from the first note. Audience going berserk. People crying, dancing and misbehaving. It is an amazing beast, the Fire! Orchestra. And so inspiring to work with so many strong individuals, from so many different backgrounds. The idea of getting all our friends together was a good one, we found out, since they all represent our various interests and dedications in creative music, be it contemporary music, noise, free jazz, alt rock and all other related activities.

CD cover for Enter (Courtesy Rune Grammofon)
GW: At this concert will you concentrate solely on the new composition, Enter, the work on the new Fire! Orchestra CD, which follows the first CD, Exit (both on Rune Grammofon)?

MG: Yes, we will make a new version of Enter. Things do change from concert to concert. I do quite a lot of conduction and a lot of freer sections, so there are always new things going on.

GW: The intense moods and references on Enter cut across all kinds of music with strong bases in jazz and rock, but embrace much else from free passages to crisp, restrained brass work, and take on board vocals, both conventional (in English) and impressionistic. Does this range reflect your personal interests - obsessions, even?

MG: Yes, exactly. All the individual members of the orchestra are really coming from all different directions of music. Whatever kicks our minds and butts. Whatever music that challenges us in the trio. Whichever musicians make us burn.

The network of musicians and groups that are built around the trio Fire! is pretty intense and we plan to expand that universe as we go. These are all favourite musicians of ours. The personnel changes slightly from tour to tour, because of the Fire! Orchestra baby boom and other commitments, but the core of the ensemble is still the same. Approx 30 musicians, two engineers and a tour manager to keep under control!

GW: How is the structure decided? Is it down to you alone to compose the riffs and create the format within which the other 27 musicians operate over its hour-long duration - or is it a collaborative composition shared with Johan and Andreas and others?

MG: Enter is co-composed by the trio Fire! and singer Mariam Wallentin. We all came up with riffs, rhythms, melodies, arrangements, chorals and ideas on how to structure the music. Mariam wrote the lyrics, and we just brainstormed it all together.

I made a graphic score that represents what we discussed together. During the piece I can change the path of the music with my conductions and signals. It is all actually a very democratic (whatever that word means nowadays!) process and this is the way we work in Fire!. From the start of the group until the bitter end, whenever that shows up. The other members of the Orchestra are, of course, actively discussing further possibilities of the music during rehearsals, soundchecks, barhangs, breakfasts and other related activities. It is all open.

But to be able to control the music a bit, and to do Fire! music – we felt that we needed a clear structure to start from and to deal with. The next piece we’ll do, will be a different story, of course….

GW:Are there specific scores - graphic and otherwise - which the musicians work from?

MG: Yes, one graphic score with instructions. And quite a lot of conduction to be able to open shit up.

GW:Are there many opportunities to rehearse?

MG: With 28 musicians and people living in Stockholm, Oslo, Berlin, Nickelsdorf, Lund, Göteborg, Copenhagen? No, this is hard! We wish we could do that. But economically it is just impossible. We are willing to discuss this with anybody who wants to put money into the band, so that we can rehearse and tour frequently!

It is, anyway, still quite unreal that we are doing this project at all. We thought it would just be a one-off concert in Stockholm with our friends, playing for our friends - and see now, what is going on! Hilarious! But, this is an important part of the Orchestra, to do the impossible, in these times of confusion and stupidities, globally and locally, it IS important to do things. TO DO things. We try. And we enjoy trying.

GW:I am interested to know why you have focused on the mechanism of fairly heavy riffs to bind the whole concept. Can you explain how these work as compositional devices in this context?

MG: This is the main element in the Fire! trio. The riff-based structures, the repetition and how to move the energy within the structure. How to lock a groove and open it up without losing direction, focus or energy. So, we took that concept straight into the universe of the Orchestra.

FIRE! Orchestra. Photo credit: Micke Keysendal. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Of course, there are endless possibilities with a beast of 28 musicians. You can really do anything with musicians on this level. And that is also a really important factor in the music of the Orchestra, not to overdo it. To restrain and let the music come first. To find the balance on how to use the individual voices….

The solo capabilities in this ensemble are amazing. But we can’t have all 28 soloing in every version of the piece; it would become something else, and much more predictable. So, the order is decided in an instant by the conductor, depending on what has happened previously in the piece.

GW: There are great brass arrangements - so light and tight - in contrast to some of the dense, loose passages. Can you tell us about these?

MG: The brass arrangements are made by our great trombone hero, Mats Äleklint. We only need one trombone in the Orchestra, and Mats is the strongest trombone player I have ever worked with, musically and volume-wise. He is also a fantastic arranger. I wrote and arranged the choral section, but all the other horn arrangements are made by the other Mats.

GW: And the vocals - who has written the words, and is there a verbal theme/concept?

MG: Mariam wrote the lyrics which were loosely inspired by a text made by the great Joe McPhee. But, basically, it’s from Mariam’s mind and soul. She writes great texts, and is very inspiring to work with when she guests in the trio from time to time. The singers worked together to find the best possible arrangements for the vocals, and they each have a specific text to work with, which they can use in any way they feel like.

GW: You have previously mentioned key inspirations, including Centipede, Sun Ra, Carla Bley and G L Unit. What is it about these (and other) radical big bands that particularly appeals to you? And do other big bands (Ellington, Basie) figure in your thinking?

MG: Oh, yes. The history is the history. The element that we always have to deal with. Whether you like it or not - and I love it. The great orchestras of Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Mingus, John Kirby, Harry Arnold, they all affect what we do. How can we avoid it? They are all great sources of inspiration.

It is just a very thrilling challenge to work with a large orchestra. To work only freely is very, very hard, and that is obvious if you look at the history of free improvisation in large units. There are some exceptions with larger bands that managed to play free improvisation in a large context, like the larger groups of Günter Christmann and Derek Bailey, but, in general, it is a hard thing. And that IS the challenge. And if we – and I, personally – don’t feel challenged by it… we’d rather stay at home, dealing with our vinyl collections.

The real challenge is to balance the pre-structured/composed material with the freer passages. To make the friction between them work. The friction itself creates new platforms to work with, and against.

GW: Is there a reason that many of these bands date back to the late 60s and the 70s?

MG: Not really. It is mostly a musical challenge. The urge of doing it in a larger context. But, yes, it was another time. Different energy, different possibilities. But, I think there has never been as important and valid a time as now to really make it happen, to work in a context that shouldn’t be possible, from logistical and economic points of view.

In the 60s and 70s there was still a lot of exploration to do. The meeting between the prog/psych rock and the freer possibilities of jazz/improvised music, and also the frictions created with the infusion of electronic music as well as written contemporary music. It is all about the friction, the energy. The meeting of traditions and thoughts. But, in the history of jazz-related music, there have always been large groups and will always be. We need that shit to be explored even more.

GW: For a particular section of Enter, Joe McPhee is also singled out as the specific inspiration, and so is a track from the Beatles’ Revolver LP. Could you tell us more about how they impacted on the creative process, and how this influence was absorbed in to the concept?

MG: Joe McPhee wrote an initial text for us, that Mariam took apart and recreated it as something of her own which she later gave back to us to work with. So, that was the main source of inspiration. Joe is the man. One of the most beautiful human beings on this planet. I have no words. His music and his mind is with me and us, all the time.

Beatles? That is a car, isn’t it ? Seriously… we have gotten reviews and comments about using a Beatles quote on this record. Which could be good, or bad, depending on who you are. But there are no references or ideas of using their music at all, in the context of this piece. I hear so many other sources of inspiration in this music, that are much more obvious for us… Bubble Puppy, Mecki Mark Men, Bengt Nordström, Codeine, Gal Costa… or maybe it is just the way that Andreas and Simon dress?

GW:How did you select the excellent musicians and get them on board, and how do they feel about constantly crossing from their comfort zones in to other genres?

MG: You need to ask them individually about that! They are still with us - and they aren’t doing this project because of money, so, perhaps there are still some elements of the music that they all like. Some of them are, of course, very familiar with large group improvisations - and some are not.

We just love that MIX of different backgrounds, interests and perspectives. These are our favourite Swedish musicians, and they surely kick ass, in the context of the Orchestra - and outside as well!

To have people from groups as diverse as Ass, Silverbullit, Tape, Nacka Forum, GUSH, Tonbruket, Dungen, Atomic, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Attack and others is just… fanfuckintastic!

There are so many great musicians within our three individual networks. So, we just invited the first ones that came to our minds. The problem is that there are many, many more in Sweden. We could put together a really huge Orchestra with 100 members at some point. But, so far, I’m the only one into this idea! But I’m working on convincing the others about the greatness of such a stupid thing.

In one way or the other, we’ll try to keep the Orchestra together. For yearly adventures, preferably in early January. Which was the starting point of the Orchestra. To meet after the winter weekends and just PLAY!

GW: You have managed to take the Fire! Orchestra on a highly successful tour in Europe - how does this work? Not only logistically (you have talked of three green buses) but also financially? Are there sponsors who help make it happen?

MG: Without our great engineers - Mikael Werliin: sound genius! - and our amazing tour manager and photographer, Micke Keysendal – it wouldn’t have been possible.

We are a Swedish group, not Norwegian. So, we don’t have unlimited support money. We managed to get some travel costs covered for this year from the Swedish Arts Council (Musikverket) – but in previous years we managed without. Just because we HAD to. For the future… we have no idea. But again, we’ll make it happen! There are shitloads of music and places to explore!

GW:Do small ensembles emerge from the body of the orchestra - something which Barry Guy and Peter Brötzmann have each explored at their Cafe Oto concerts - or will you concentrate purely on the full orchestra at the concert at The Laundry?

MG: Within the context of this concert, there will be just the Orchestra. If there would have been more time and a different budget around… different possibilities emerge. We were initially talking to Cafe Oto about doing small groups as well. But, it just wasn’t possible this time. Logistically, this unit is a handful!

There is always a next time… if you want. We are working on it. During the tours we do always have a first set with small groups or soloists. We will keep this tradition. It is highly inspirational to hear the musicians play before the Orchestra. This, of course, affects the whole thing. That is the way it should be.

GW:How much do individuals shape the piece at each performance, and does each performance take on a life that deviates from the central score?

MG: Oh yes, it all differs from concert to concert. That is the nature of music and human beings. Of life. Different soloists in the piece every night, and also at different sections in the piece. Whatever needs to be done. It is all instant decisions. But, of course, yesterday’s concert affects today’s; it is an ongoing process. I love that.

GW: You will be conducting, and using conduction techniques to guide and exercise control over the ensemble. How much opportunity will you have to play sax - bari or tenor - and when you do, does another musician take the captain’s arm band for these passages?

MG: Yeah, I feel sometimes like a windmill on the loose… a wind turbine eating the wrong mushrooms. There is so much activity going on. It is truly fantastic to stand there in front of all the great people, with the endless possibilities there are within the conduction techniques. Trying hard not to overdo it and just support the music. To put ENERGY into the thing. I’m usually playing tenor sax with the Orchestra, since we already have two amazing bari players in the band. Usually I end up playing with Mariam during her section. That riff she did for that is just KILLING!!! I just can’t resist joining in!

GW:I just wanted to ask about the exclamation mark after 'Fire', which is great - how did that arrive?

MG: This is all the fault of one of the trumpet players! Magnus Broo, the mad jazz bee, has always used the expression ‘FIRE!’ when he is positive about something (we think that is why he says it, at least), and that was clearly with an exclamation mark! We asked him for permission to use it as our band name. He agreed happily with a cheerful ‘Fire!’.

GW:And, finally, how did your well-known interest in obscure and crucial vinyl start - and how do you feed the obsession?

MG: I feed it every day. This is the sole reason why I tour these days. To feed my discaholism. To hunt. Every day. Endless search.‘One piece of vinyl per day keeps the doctor away,’ as my friend, Olof Madsen, puts it. It is a long story. Some day it will be told. We can meet at Rough Trade, Reckless, Honest Jon’s or at Kristina Records and I can tell you part of that story.

Hit the wall. Hit the wall. That always comes first. Hit the wall (and the new arrivals)!

Fire! Orchestra personnel

Mariam Wallentin, Simon Ohlsson, Sofia Jernberg (voice), Niklas Barnö, Magnus Broo, Goran Kajfes, Emil Strandberg (trumpet), Mats Äleklint (trombone), Per Åke Holmlander (tuba), Anna Högberg (alto sax), Mats Gustafsson, Elin Larsson, Malin Wättring (tenor sax), Jonas Kullhammar (bass sax), Martin Küchen (baritone sax), Fredrik Ljungkvist (baritone sax, clarinet), Christer Bothén (bass clarinet, guimbri), Andreas Söderström, Sören Runolf, David Stackenäs (guitar), Sten Sandell (synthesizer and harmonium, piano), Martin Hederos, (organ, keyboards), Joachim Nordwall (electronics), Johan Berthling (el bass), Joel Grip, Dan Berglund (bass), Andreas Werliin, Johan Holmegard, Raymond Strid (drums)

Fire! Orchestra website / 'Enter' CD/LP is on Rune Grammofon

Tickets for the Laundry concert, 26 September

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